Historian touted Robbins limestone for years
By Casey Toner firstname.lastname@example.org November 3, 2013 9:56PM
Updated: December 5, 2013 6:16AM
For years, Tyrone Haymore would tell anyone who would listen about the wealth of limestone buried beneath Robbins’ soil.
“I always said if I had nothing else to do and found a little money and if I could move half the people out of this town, I’d be a very rich man, “ said Haymore, a former village trustee and clerk who runs the Robbins History Museum. “Most people just shook it off. They didn’t take the seriousness of what I was saying. Except Jim Louthen.”
Haymore said Louthen heard one of his historical presentations, conducted a soil test, and excavated small, cylindrical limestone samples from village grounds. A company managed by Louthen, ALM Resources, subsequently signed a deal in May with Robbins that would allow the company to acquire a significant portion of the village’s land including about 50 occupied homes to dig a 61-acre quarry and a 169-acre underground mine.
Louthen would not say where he learned about the village’s limestone deposits. He did, however, call Haymore “an elder statesman and community historian.”
“He has put in countless years of his life to celebrating the history of the community,” Louthen said. “He’s knowledgeable about the limestone bedrock. We’re kindred spirits so we’re both aware of that.”
Under growing pressure from concerned homeowners, the village board voted last month to not pursue a bill in the General Assembly’s ongoing fall veto session that would enable the village to quickly acquire land needed for the project. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart also announced last week that he was investigating the project to make sure that residents’ rights were protected and the process was transparent.
“As poor as this town is, and has been, every time something comes up you have people fighting progress,” said Haymore, who displays one of Louthen’s limestone samples in his museum. “You don’t fight progress, you support progress.”
Haymore said the village — one of the poorest in the Southland — has its roots in limestone. Long before the village was settled, miners pulled up the rock in the early 1800s, leaving holes in the ground that later became ponds.
The village itself is named after Henry E. Robbins, who bought up south suburban property on behalf of a New York-based business that hoped Chicago would incorporate it and turn it into the host site for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Haymore said.
When the city did not buy the land, Robbins sold it for as low as $50 a plot in 1892 to about two dozen biracial families that moved north following the Civil War but had trouble integrating with the all black families living in Chicago, Haymore said.
At the time, Haymore said, residents relied on neighboring municipalities for their services and faced constant harassment from white citizens. Early Robbins residents including village founders Thomas J. Kellar, Richard Flowers, and Leroy Thomas felt that if they had their own mayor, firefighters, police, and judges the village residents would be safer, Haymore said.
“When they started, they began telling people the only way we will get justice for the crimes being done to our people is that we will have to organize and form our own town,” Haymore said. “Most were not used to blacks holding high positions. It was a hard sell.”
Robbins was incorporated on Dec. 14, 1917, becoming the first town in the northern United States to be settled by African Americans, Haymore said.
Haymore opened the history museum in 1999 in a small storefront located at 3644 West 139th St. The appointment-only museum gives Robbins residents — many of whom have had family living in the village for generations — a glimpse into the village’s past and future.
“We’ve been put down so much for so long,” Haymore said. “There’s too much negativity. When I find out something we did the most in or the first in, I want to highlight that to build the self-esteem of our people.”
On prominent display is an exhibit about the Robbins Airport, built by trailblazing African-American pilots Cornelius Coffey and John C. Robinson in 1931. A heavy storm destroyed the airport two years later. Pictures of the airport, the first owned and run by African Americans in the United States, are featured at the Robbins History Museum as well as the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
The museum also features pictures of celebrities with Robbins ties (prominent businessman Samuel B. Fuller, Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols, Mr. T, Dwayne Wade), an overview of the village’s ties to early civil rights leader Marcus Garvey, and an exhibit about the Robbins Incinerator.
Robbins issued $320 million in tax-exempt bonds in 1994 to build the incinerator which opened three years later, incurred hundreds of air pollution and carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions violations, and posted multi-million dollar losses before closing in 2000. It sits empty today.
Haymore supported the incinerator and says he sees a parallel with what is happening to the proposed limestone quarry and mine, which is under fire from residents and politicians including U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago). Like the incinerator, the quarry and mine represent a chance for Robbins to pick itself up.
“Whatever we get out of it, large or small, it’s more than what we currently have,” Haymore said. “Even if we got a crumb, it would be a tremendous piece of crumb for this town.”